Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Communications Law
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The FCC's orders, together with Title VI of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. 521, establish rules by which state and local governments may regulate cable providers. A cable operator may provide cable services only if a franchising authority—usually a local body, but sometimes a unit of state government—grants the operator a franchise. Franchising authorities often require that cable operators pay fees, provide free cable service for public buildings, and set aside channel capacity for public, educational, and governmental use. The Act limits “franchise fees” to five percent of a cable operator’s gross revenues for cable services for any 12-month period.The FCC's 2007 “First Order” announced the “mixed-use rule,” under which franchisors could not regulate the non-cable services of cable operators who were “common carriers” under the Act. A “Second Order” interpreted “franchise fee” to include noncash exactions except those exempted by statute; counted the value of those exactions toward the fee cap; and extended the “mixed-use rule” to “incumbent” cable operators, who generally were not common carriers.The 2019 Third Order concluded that most cable-related noncash exactions are franchise fees; explained why the Act does not allow franchising authorities to regulate the non-cable services of cable operators who are not common carriers; and extended FCC rulings to state (rather than just local) franchising authorities.The Sixth Circuit denied, in part, challenges by franchising authorities, upholding the FCC’s interpretation of “franchise fee” but holding that noncash cable-related exactions should be assigned a value equal to the cable operator’s marginal cost in providing them. A fee on broadband services is not imposed based on the operator’s provision of cable services and is not a “franchise fee” under section 542(g)(1); it does not count toward the cap and its imposition is not preempted. The extension to state franchisors was not arbitrary. View "City of Chicago v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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Memphis previously maintained an email Media Advisory List to alert members of the media about newsworthy events and activities. The List included Thomas, the founder, editor, and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, an online news website covering issues at “the intersection of poverty, power, and public policy.” Thomas claims that in 2018, she was excluded from the List in retaliation for her news coverage of Mayor Strickland. Thomas alleges that she made multiple requests to be returned to the List and that, at one point, the City’s Chief Communications Officer (Madden) stated: “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.” Thomas’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserted violations of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court dismissed Thomas’ claims against Strickland and Madden on other grounds, and later dismissed as moot her claims against the city, finding that the city had ceased relying upon the List to disseminate media advisories and that the process that led to the new media relations policy was “not ad hoc or discretionary.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The city demonstrated that there is no reasonable expectation that it will re-implement the List and established that its change in media relations policy completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the challenged conduct. The change in media relations policy was “legislative-like.” View "Thomas v. City of Memphis" on Justia Law

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Curaden AG, a Swiss entity, manufactures toothbrushes. Curaden USA, an Ohio corporation headquartered in Arizona, is a Curaden AG subsidiary and promotes Curaden AG products throughout the U.S. The two companies had not executed the standard written distribution agreement that typically governs the practices of Curaden AG’s subsidiary distributors. Curaden USA never presented its advertising materials to Curaden AG for review. Curaden USA purchased a list of thousands of dental professionals’ fax numbers and created the fax advertisements at issue, which displayed Curaden USA’s contact information without mention of Curaden AG. Curaden USA hired companies to send the faxes and paid for the transmission. Lyngaas, a Livonia dentist who had received two Curaden USA faxes, filed a purported class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. 227. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that Lyngaas could not pierce the corporate veil to hold Curaden AG liable for Curaden USA’s action, that faxes received by a computer over a telephone line violated the TCPA, that it had personal jurisdiction over both Curaden entities, that Curaden USA violated the TCPA but that Curaden AG was not liable as a “sender,” and that Lyngaas’s evidence and expert-witness testimony concerning the total number of faxes successfully sent were inadmissible due to unauthenticated fax records. A claims-administration process was established for class members to verify their receipt of the unsolicited fax advertisements. View "Lyngaas v. Curaden AG" on Justia Law

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In 2004, Kimball was convicted of multiple drug-trafficking, weapons, money-laundering offenses, soliciting murder, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment plus 15 years. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In April 2020, Kimball sought compassionate release, asserting that there were extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting compassionate release because he is at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 based on his age (67) and medical conditions (hypertension, heart problems, high cholesterol, and gout) and that the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors weighed in favor of release.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief, rejecting Kimball’s argument that the time he has already served—approximately 17 years—is sufficient to serve the section 3553(a) goals because his offense did not involve any “actual violence” and he is statistically unlikely to re-offend based on his age. The court noted that when it affirmed his effective life sentence, he was the “undisputed kingpin and mastermind” of a “massive cocaine-trafficking conspiracy.” The district court’s order noted that its decision rested at least in part on the section 3553(a) factors; courts may deny relief under those factors “even if ‘extraordinary and compelling’ reasons would otherwise justify relief.” Even if the district court “mistakenly limited itself to the commentary’s list of extraordinary and compelling reasons," that would not entitle him to relief. View "United States v. Kimball" on Justia Law

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High school students from Kentucky received widespread attention for their conduct at the Lincoln Memorial during the 2019 March for Life rally. An incident occurred after the march between Covington Catholic students, including the plaintiffs, and others, including “a self-described Native American Elder.” In the wake of negative coverage and critical posts on social media, the students sued several media defendants and people who had engaged in online commentary about the incident, alleging civil harassment, harassing communications, menacing, and terroristic threatening.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the cases against Twitter users Chandrasekhar, a doctor who lives in New Jersey, and Griffin, a comedian who lives in California, for lack of personal jurisdiction. The court rejected an argument that filing a notice of appearance automatically waives the personal jurisdiction defense; precedent that seemingly implied such a rule involved the defendant’s extensive participation in the litigation. Griffin had not filed any responsive pleading that omitted the defense, nor had she “participated in any other way that would lead plaintiffs to conclude that [she] would not assert the defense.” The defendants’ conduct is plainly outside the scope of the Kentucky long-arm statute since neither Griffin nor Chandrasekhar committed any act “in [the] Commonwealth” of Kentucky under KRS 454.210(2)(a)(3). View "Doe v. Griffin" on Justia Law

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To advertise its nearby adult bookstore, Lion’s Den displays a billboard, affixed to a tractor-trailer, on a neighbor’s property. Kentucky’s Billboard Act prohibits such off-site billboards if the advertisement is not securely affixed to the ground, the sign is attached to a mobile structure, and no permit has been obtained. None of these requirements applies to an on-site billboard advertisement. The Act applies equally to commercial and non-commercial speech on billboards.In a First Amendment challenge to the Act, the Sixth Circuit affirmed an injunction, prohibiting the Commonwealth from enforcing its law. The Act regulates commercial and non-commercial speech on content-based grounds by distinguishing between messages concerning on-site activities and those concerning off-site activities. The court applied strict scrutiny and held that the Act is not tailored to achieve Kentucky’s purported interests in safety and aesthetics. Kentucky has offered no reason to believe that on-site signs pose a greater threat to safety than do off-site signs and billboards are a "greater eyesore." View "L.D. Management Co. v. Gray" on Justia Law

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When a Google employee views a digital file and confirms that it is child pornography, Google assigns the file a hash value (digital fingerprint). It then scans Gmail for files with the same value. Google learned that a Gmail account had uploaded files with hash values matching child pornography and sent a report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC’s systems traced the IP address to Kentucky. A local detective connected Miller to the Gmail account.The Sixth Circuit affirmed Miller’s convictions. The Fourth Amendment restricts government, not private, action. A private party who searches a physical space and hands over paper files to the government has not violated the Fourth Amendment. Rejecting Miller’s argument that the detective conducted an “unreasonable search” when he later opened and viewed the files sent by Google, the court reasoned that the government does not conduct a Fourth Amendment search when there is a “virtual certainty” that its search will disclose nothing more than what a private party’s earlier search revealed. A hash-value match has near-perfect accuracy, creating a “virtual certainty” that the files in the Gmail account were the known child-pornography files that a Google employee had viewed. The admission of NCMEC’s report at trial did not violate Miller’s Sixth Amendment right to confront “witnesses.” The rule applies to statements by people. NCMEC’s automated systems, not a person, entered the information into the report. View "United States v. Miller" on Justia Law

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SMART manages a public-transportation system for the counties in and around Detroit. For a fee, parties may display advertisements on the inside and outside of SMART’s buses and bus shelters. SMART guidelines prohibit “political” ads; ads that engage in “scorn or ridicule”; advertising promoting the sale of alcohol or tobacco; advertising that is false, misleading, or deceptive; advertising that is clearly defamatory or likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule any person or group of persons; advertising that is obscene or pornographic or advocates imminent lawlessness or unlawful violent action.AFDI sought to run an ad that said: “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got Questions? RefugefromIslam.com.” SMART rejected this ad as “political” and as holding up a group of people to “scorn or ridicule.”Initially, the Sixth Circuit held that the advertising space on SMART’s buses is a nonpublic forum and that SMART likely could show that its restrictions were reasonable and viewpoint neutral. In light of subsequent Supreme Court decisions, the Sixth Circuit reversed. SMART’s ban on “political” ads is unreasonable because SMART offers no “sensible basis for distinguishing what may come in from what must stay out.”. SMART’s ban on ads that engage in “scorn or ridicule” is not viewpoint-neutral. For any group, “an applicant may [display] a positive or benign [ad] but not a derogatory one.” View "American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation" on Justia Law

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Bennett worked at the Metro Government Emergency Communications Center (ECC) for 16 years. On November 9, 2016, Bennett, a white woman, responded to someone else's comment on her public-facing Facebook profile, using some of the commenter’s words: “Thank god we have more America loving rednecks. Red spread across all America. Even niggaz and latinos voted for trump too!” Bennett identified herself as an employee of Metro, the police department, and ECC in her Facebook profile. A constituent reposted part of Bennett’s statement and commented: If your skin is too dark your call may have just been placed on the back burner. Several employees and an outsider complained to ECC leadership. Bennett failed to show remorse. ECC officials determined that Bennett violated three Civil Service Rules and, after paid administrative leave and a due process hearing, fired her.Bennett sued Metro for First Amendment retaliation. The Sixth Circuit reversed a judgment in favor of Bennett, finding that the district court improperly analyzed the “Pickering” factors. The record indicated that the harmony of the office was disrupted; the court erred in discounting the importance of harmonious relationships at ECC. It is possible that inaction on ECC’s part could have been seen as an endorsement of the speech and impaired future discipline of similar derogatory statements. It is also possible that a damaged relationship with her colleagues could affect the quality and quantity of Bennett's work. Bennett’s comment detracted from ECC's mission. View "Bennett v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County" on Justia Law

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Rudd alleged that his ex-wife abducted their sons with assistance from her attorney (Meyers), during a child custody dispute. Rudd called the police but alleges that they refused to help him because Meyers is married to the city manager. Rudd filed an official complaint with the police department. Rudd claims that officials subsequently helped Meyers obtain an ex parte personal protection order as “leverage” in the custody case, authorized officers to illegally disclose Rudd’s information on the Law Enforcement Information Network, and falsified reports. Rudd prevailed in the custody case. Norton Shores later hired a new police chief, Gale. Rudd thought that Gale might “objectively” address the way that the police had handled his sons’ abduction and filed an official complaint. Gale told Rudd that he would investigate and have the Michigan State Police investigate. Instead, Rudd alleges, Gale gave his complaint to Meyers, the city manager, and the former police chief; never internally investigated; and set up a sham outside investigation. Rudd claims that his complaint triggered retaliatory actions, including an effort to get him jailed.Rudd brought a pro se suit against everyone involved. The Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of his suit. The evidence may confirm Rudd’s allegations or it may disprove them but a court must accept his allegations as true at the pleading stage. View "Rudd v. City of Norton Shores" on Justia Law